Considering the current temperatures, it's tempting to stay warm by getting all hot under the collar about the recent — and mind-blowingly excessive — Xcel Energy bills. And let's face it, that's the cheapest way to stay warm right now.
According to its mission, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission “serves the public interest by effectively regulating utilities and facilities so that the people of Colorado receive safe, reliable, and reasonably-priced services consistent with the economic, environmental and social values of our state” — but people struggling to pay their hefty winter Xcel bills don’t feel like the agency’s regulation has been very effective lately.
Still, the PUC is aware that something needs to be done, and to that end will hold a listening session January 31 to try to understand the challenges people have with their bills. If you've been reading Westword over the past few months, you might have an idea: one, people don’t understand their bills; two, they’re sacrificing groceries to pay them; and three, they feel like they have no power compared to the Goliath that bills them.
At the commissioners’ weekly meeting on January 25, they discussed utility bill affordability.
“I can't remember seeing this level of pain in the consumer community since the 1970s in the gas crisis,” Commissioner John Gavan said. “I take this very seriously, and I'm glad that we're having a session to really help surface the issues and explain what we know at this point.”
Now the PUC will host a session with the public starting at 3 p.m. on January 31. People can register to speak from 3 to 4:30 p.m. or 5 to 6:30 p.m., and those who want to listen rather than speak can watch the webcast on the Department of Regulatory Affairs website.
This is your chance to let your utilities commission know what you’re going through and how they can help. At the commissioners’ January 25 meeting, they shared a few ideas, but noted that the price of natural gas is the main driver of high bills — and that is out of their control.
Commissioner Megan Gilman thinks the commission could do something about those prices, though, particularly when it comes to realigning the incentive for utilities to purchase the cheapest gas.
“You have a fundamentally flawed economic transaction when one party to the transaction wants to make as much money as possible, and the other party is agnostic,” she said. In this case, those selling the gas want to make money, and Xcel is agnostic because the cost is passed on to customers. “We need to ensure that they have some skin in the game.”
Gilman wants to see more attention paid to customer cost concerns by utilities going forward, and the commission collectively indicated that it will continue to work on those long-term solutions. Customers can be a part of that by speaking at the listening session on January 31.
Meanwhile, if you need help with your bill, other state actors are offering suggestions. The Colorado Department of Human Services is encouraging people to apply to Colorado’s Low-income Energy Assistance Program, which helps save eligible households money by paying a portion of winter heating bills.
LEAP will accept applications through May 1 and has already helped 57,000 households this season, up 15.8 percent from last year.
If you make $16,935 or are married and make less than $22,858, you may be eligible for a Property Tax, Rent, Heat Rebate of up to $1,044 per year that, just as it sounds, can help people with property tax, rent or heat expenses this winter. The program applies only to those over 65, or surviving spouses age 58 or older, and people of any age with a disability.
The PTC Rebate program started in 2019, when Governor Jared Polis and Lieutenant Governor Dianne Primavera took office. The administration says it has aided 13,000 Colorado residents since 2019.
Many more Coloradans need help this year, though, so here's hoping the PUC plans to do more than just listen.